“There is not a single day that goes by that I do not think of the child that I lost. And I am an old man now. “ So says obstetrician Dr. Nathan Katowski, played by Gerald McRaney, in last season’s premiere episode of NBC’s breakout hit- This Is Us.
What is he talking about? And why can he not forget? He’s talking about his personal experience with pregnancy loss. In this powerful episode, that magnetized viewers everywhere, Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia, had just learned that his wife, Rebecca, played by Mandy Moore, had delivered their triplets. But only two would be leaving the hospital to inhabit the cribs and nursery Jack and Rebecca had prepared. One of these children was stillborn. But yet this child is still family.
In one single episode, NBC took away the silence of pregnancy loss, provided it a real voice with the full-range of emotions that it deserves, and show-cased that pregnancy loss is the story of two people’s loss. The premier was a tear-jerker of an episode—even the show's creator, Dan Fogelman cried; however it wasn’t a hyperbole of emotion. This is Us accurately displayed emotions of grief-stricken parents and illustrated, through the character of Dr. K, that although time does mend some wounds, time doesn’t forget. And no one forgets his or her baby.
This is me pregnant with our now one-year old. The fear, when you are pregnant after already having faced loss, is intense. The little ones in our wombs are already family and the fear of saying good-bye too soon is something we must battle. Photo cred: Leighann Giles.
Pregnancy Loss Is More Than Statistics
1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. 1 in 160 pregnancies end in stillbirth. But these aren’t just statistics. These statistics are the numerical representation of real women having to box up footed pajamas, real partners going home to the stark silence of an already-decorated nursery, real children being told that the baby in their “mommies belly” died. The statistics constitute real women, who are in critical condition and faced with death as their ectopic pregnancy threatens them with internal bleeding. This is women and men who, during subsequent pregnancies, battle daily fears. The statistics are women. And this is a woman’s issue that needs voiced. This is us.
It’s Time to Break the Glass-Ceiling And Talk About Pregnancy Loss
Pregnancy loss is challenging to discuss, is complexly layered, and has largely been absent from the media. This silence advances the stigma of shame. For generations past, pregnancy loss was brushed off as unworthy grief. Annette, a woman in her 80s, remembers the physician telling her husband, “Well, sometimes you lose one” in reaction to their full-term child that was born still. During this time period, mourning the loss of a run-away puppy was often more worthy of grief than the death of a child. Women’s feelings were not validated nor respected. Hence, making men feel as if they shouldn’t grieve either. The cycle of silence was hurtful and detrimental toward healing.
Today, many women are at times treated brashly. Many members of society inadvertently minimize the loss. In an effort of trying to make the woman feel better, phrases such as, “You can always try again” or “It wasn’t meant to be” are uttered. But these pat reactions often fail to take into account that for some women future pregnancies are not an option due to hysterectomies and surgeries performed as a result of the physicality of loss and the fact that women and families are grieving the death of a specific and very much-desired child. This cycle of verbiage is detrimental toward healing.
What They Got Right
Thankfully, popular culture is helping change this stigma. What do NBC, Hillary Scott, Mark Zuckerberg, and Kathie Lee Gifford have in common? They all got pregnancy loss right. They talked about pregnancy loss and admitted the fullness of emotions. It hurts, we grieve, we have hope. These kind individuals made these personal statements in hopes of helping other women and families feel less alone.
In 1992 Kathie Lee Gifford graced the cover of People magazine and was quoted as vulnerably telling her Live with Regis and Kathie Lee audience about her recent miscarriage. In one tearful segment she modeled the sadness of loss coupled with the force of resilience that allows families to move forward in hope and strength. Women everywhere cheered through their tears. They grieved with her and said thank you for taking this out of the shadows. We are sorry for your loss, Kathie Lee. I had two miscarriages. It was seeing women like you face the pain that helped me cope with my reality.
In 2015 Mark Zuckerberg’s post went viral when he said:
You feel so hopeful when you learn you're going to have a child. You start imagining who they'll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they're gone. It's a lonely experience. Most people don't discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you -- as if you're defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own…We hope that sharing our experience will give more people the same hope we felt and will help more people feel comfortable sharing their stories as well. Families everywhere shared his transparent post and through sharing said, “Thank you!” and “Me too.” We are sorry for your loss, Mark and say congratulations to your new arrival.
In 2016 Hillary Scott channeled her pain into music and created a Grammy-award winning song, “Thy Will.” Women everywhere raised a fist and said, “Me too” as her song validated the sadness, loneliness, and questions surrounding loss. She offered hope and a musical articulation of a hard subject. We are sorry for your loss, Hillary and cheer with you the new lives in your womb.
Pregnancy loss is an invisible, socially mitigated grief that can have residual effects that affect partner relationships, relationships with children, future pregnancies, and the emotional health of women. Women are at a marked increase of depression and anxiety following loss. The emotional effects of loss are the root of many relationship problems. We must do a better job in helping people walk through this grief, rather than step over it. Otherwise the root is left to spread and cause emotional havoc for years to come.
As a society we can all follow the examples of the celebrities. You see the most important thing we can do as a society is acknowledging that the grief of pregnancy loss is worthy of mourning, giving families permission to grieve, and showing love. Society does a poor job in discussing grief in general and unfortunately pregnancy loss—although prevalent, is often an under served topic. But we can keep this topic in the light by talking about pregnancy loss and talking about coping strategies.
- Talking about it won’t change the past, but it can alleviate the misguided shame that is often an intrinsic reaction and constant negative internal-monologue.
- Talking about it allows another woman, on down the line, be able to look up to another brave, resilient woman and say to herself, “She’s still walking, and someday I will as well.”
- Talking about it, brings attention and will help push money into funding research on this prevalent women’s issue.
- Talking about it allows us to articulate the various journeys of pregnancy loss; therefore helping women communicate their own feelings thus helping them feel less alone and allowing partners to become closer and not grow distant.
- Talking about it allows us to do what Dr. K does when he says to Milo in This is Us, “I like to think that maybe one day you'll be an old man like me talking a younger man's ear off, explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.”
As a society it is time for us to help model and discuss paths towards turning that sourest lemon into something resembling lemonade. In the past several years, people are stepping up saying “me too.” But now it is time advance the conversation so women don’t have to fumble in the fog alone. Talking about it can build a lighthouse for the fog; it’s not going to take away the pain, but it will show paths toward a bit more comfort and safety.
October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Month, a month set aside by President Ronald Reagan, to offer support and cooperation to families who grieve. We should never expect all families to share their private heartache. For some, this isn’t healing. However, we who are a voice for this issue need to be heard and allowed to speak. We can be the Dr. K’s of the world and acknowledge that pregnancy loss does hurt and one way to move forward is to use our pain to help others feel less alone. A time when we can collectively say, "we mourn that you lost a family member" but we have the hope of a new due date when we will reunite with our child.
- Realize it’s best to step through grief and not over it.
- Realize that the common grief reactions, such as anger, sadness, shock, etc… will be present after pregnancy loss for an undetermined time.
- Realize that grief has no timeline.
- Realize that some women may need additional resources if they experience depression or anxiety.
- Realize partners most often have different styles of grief. We must each give the other space to do so.
- Realize that pregnancy loss can have long-term residual effects and women need support throughout.
- Realize that words can hurt. Don’t minimize. Instead recognize the pain.
- Realize that misconceptions about miscarriage, such as that it is the cause of heavy lifting or stress, adds to the self-blame monologue. Most often pregnancy loss is not the cause of anything the mother did, but a chromosomal abnormality or infection. Women need support, not blame.
- Realize that resources help. Devotionals such as, Loved Baby: 31 Devotions Helping You Grieve and Cherish Your Child After Pregnancy Loss, can help navigate the walk.